If you’re not aware of animator Will Vinton’s filmography, there’s a good chance that humming a few bars of Heard it Through the Grapevine will conjure up images of the anthropomorphic California Raisins, who went from being a PSA to becoming a huge merchandise commodity, incorporating computer games, albums, t-shirts and even a syndicated Saturday morning cartoon show. That’s big money, right there. Unfortunately for Vinton’s employees, who worked tirelessly to animate the musical dried grapes, their boss didn’t negotiate a better contract. As such, all the profits went to their client, California Raisin Advisory Board.
This is just one story of several in Claydream, directed by Marq Evans (The Glamour and the Squalor), which shows Vinton’s passion for animation overshadowed by his business aptitude. Wait till you hear about his story with the then fledgling company, Pixar.
Started prior to Vinton’s death from blood cancer in 2018, Evans interviews his subject and various employees about the journey from being a fledgling animation studio running on good-will, to being a slightly bigger animation studio running on good-will.
For Vinton, the goal was to be the Walt Disney of Claymation – just take a look at that company logo! – to the detriment of everything else. Not in a bloodthirsty, cutthroat kind of way though. Vinton is portrayed as a man who was perpetually hopeful to the point that if things weren’t going too well, it was best to just ignore it till it fixed itself or went away. Something his ex-wife testifies to on behalf of herself and his first wife. Oh, and there was that one time his first partner in crime, with whom he won an Oscar, threatened to assassinate him.
Working solely in clay, Evans suggests there was a myopic view of Vinton’s work by the public and entertainment industry. Vinton wanted to experiment with his art, pushing it beyond the limited scope of Gumby. However, his first foray into feature films, The Adventures of Mark Twain, despite all its surreal scenes sure to terrify the young, was pushed as a family film. A family film with warnings that it might be too full-on for the kiddies. Unsurprisingly, it tanked.
Vinton was seemingly too innocent for a world that was becoming increasingly monetised and business-oriented. As Evans charts the ‘rise’ of Vinton’s success, he cuts back and forth to the legal case between the claydreamer and Nike CEO, Phil Knight.
Knight saw Vinton’s studio as a profitable investment and became a shareholder in 1998. Unbeknownst to Vinton, Knight soon began buying out other shareholders before finally introducing a clause into his contract which gave the majority shareholder the right to fire Vinton from his own company.
Evans uses footage from the legal dispositions and, to paraphrase The Simpsons, if you pause it just right you can see Vinton’s heart break as he realises the world around him is collapsing. Knowing that Knight’s power grab, and putting his son Travis on the board of directors, led to Laika Studios, will certainly sour Kubo and the Two strings for many.
At its heart though, Claydream doesn’t mourn a talent, but celebrates it. Punctuated with clips from his work, Vinton’s employees have nothing but good things to say about their boss. Even if his contracts with them weren’t legally binding to begin with, they can’t fault someone for wanting to maintain the joy he got from animation. You just wish someone had tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, ‘Will, don’t forget to employ lawyers.’